- Megan Bingham
A quack is defined by Google.com as "a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically in medicine." There are other words relating to a quack, such as humbug, charlatan, con artist, and swindler. Overall, anything recommended by a quack will not be useful. In fact, it may be quite dangerous. It may just take your life.
Most of the time, quacks lured in their victims by promising medical miracles. The cures themselves are so dubious that only the desperate would try them. However, the authors of Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything suggest that quackery is not just about pure deception but, in fact, includes situations when people believe that what they're selling may actually be working. Some examples of common practices include the citizens of the Ottoman Empire eating clay to keep the plague away and the Victorians using mercury steam rooms to cure syphilis.
Quackery is divided into sections, each covering a number of ancient "solutions" to diseases, chronic or otherwise. In "Elements," prescriptions from the periodic table surfaces. Calomel (or more commonly known as Mercury(I) chloride) was, incredibly, used as part of a teething powder for infants until 1954. Often the infants would come down with Pink's Disease, or acrodynia, in which the skin would appear rosy and extreme pain would occur in the hands and feet.
Antimony pills were claimed to be an "everlasting pill." Many believed that purgatives were necessary to balance the body, and they would help digestion. However, the grayish metalloid mined from mineral deposits was an extremely toxic substance. Cauterization and blistering were believed to heal headaches. Other sections include topics on opiates and tobacco, "corpse" medicine, and "tools" for slicing, dicing, dousing, and draining, such as bloodletting with leeches, the Cold Water Cure, and other kinds of hydrotherapy.
In modern medicine, these practices are known to be of limited use if not dangerous. But, this book is about times before the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration or most technology that could improve outcomes for a disease. Humans have an incredible will to live and are willing to try almost anything to survive. This drive also led to innovation, such as doctors using anesthesia and wearing sterile gloves during surgery—not practiced until the 19th century or later. For more titles like Quackery, check out Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine and Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them.